Friday, January 30, 2009

Qualifying your leads and making a bid/no-bid decision for your business proposal

This is the second in a short series of blog entries from Learn to Write Proposals examining "how to write a proposal".

Once we have an opportunity we need to decide whether it is a viable one for us to actively pursue. Having meetings with clients, preparing a written proposal, travelling to a presentation and all the other costs of gaining business are just one aspect. It may be that the opportunity isn't quite right for you - it may not be your core competence or could be a distraction from a more important project or prospect. Maybe you know that your competition is in prime position for this piece of work and you feel that this project "has their name" all over it (we'll look at that problem in a later article) and that it simply isn't worth you writing a proposal..

So how do you decide whether to bid or not? The danger is that you make an emotional decision to bid and write a proposal, even though it may not be the right opportunity for the business, after all you have put in the effort to find or create the lead. You should go through this process even if a client organisation has given you a "hot" lead and asked you to respond to their RFP or tender document.

You need to qualify your lead all the way through the sales process - from the initial prospecting to just before the submission of the proposal. At Learn to Write Proposals we have our Bid Qualification Toolkit to help you make those decisions and it helps you in two ways.

Firstly, the Bid Qualification Engine helps you measure the probability of your success in a particular opportunity, but this isn't a one-time thing that might stop your business development in its tracks...every time you qualify the opportunity you are identifying strengths and weaknesses in your capture planning strategy (our next article will look at capture planning in more detail and how you can develop a strategy to help you win work). Identifying weaknesses in you position (and the potential impact of those weaknesses) early on in the business development process helps you overcome them and make your proposal and position stronger.

Secondly, the Bid/No-Bid matrix helps you make an objective decision about the viability of an opportunity.

Any sort of formal qualifying process is important and should be done regularly throughout the development process. Why? Because it will help inform you about your progress and also will help you if your bid is unsuccessful and an analysis and report has to be made of what went wrong. If you can show that you followed a structured process of identifying potential problems and mitigating them, it helps feed into improving how you go about writing business proposals and winning work.

This is the process of constant qualification and you can read more about this in our article here.

Next...capture planning - strategies to get you in a winning position.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Finding and creating opportunities for writing a proposal

This is the first in a short series of blog entries from Learn to Write Proposals examining "how to write a proposal".

The fact is that proposal writing starts well before you even put pen to paper...because the proposal is only part of the business development cycle. Sure, there are the technical things you need to know how to put the proposal together and to write persuasively, but if you know your client and know what you can do to help them, then writing the proposal should be the easy bit...

In order to get to where we have to write a proposal, we have to have a client and a need identified. And either of those could come first.

If you have a product that fills a certain need, then you can target organisations that have that need. Presuming you have a genuine value proposition then it shouldn't be too hard to sell...and presumably you have the need in mind when the product was developed...if you didn't then you have a strange way of going about product development.

But what if you are more services-oriented and don't have an off-the shelf solution to sell? How do you find and create opportunities? In many ways the same way...surely you have a marketable solution that you can offer to a target organisation...

You may have a long list of target organisations, but how do you get in the door. Maybe they have an incumbent offering a similar service already. Firstly, get to know them. Get an appointment - if you can get a call to a decision maker then asking for a few minutes of their time shouldn't be hard - as long as you can demonstrate that you can offer better value to them than a competitor or provide them with something that solves a business need.

Use a SWOT analysis to help you quantify your own value proposition and refine it. Use competitor evaluation tools to help identify your market position.

There are of course occasions when tenders and RFPs are advertised, but by then the organisation has done it's research and knows what it wants - to get the most out of opportunities, try and get in there first and create your own. What tenders provide you with though are information about the business and especially their procurement cycle. The more professional procurement gets, then the better you have to be ready to handle it. Remember that not all your competitors may not jump through all the hoops as well as you, so use the procurement process to your advantage.

Once you have a target client, then create an account plan for how you will achieve your goals. Start those goals small - a phone call with your target buyer. Then a meeting, then an identified opportunity stating at each step of the way what you need to do to close the next goal that you have identified. Remember that getting any kind of action from the client - agreeing to a phone call or meeting is a close...and if you keep closing you end up writing a proposal (hopefully writing a winning proposal) for your client.

Plan regular meetings and calls with the client and once you get to know them, give yourself a monetary target that you are looking to get from that client.

No-one is handing business out these days - you have to go after it, and create your own leads. So do research on potential organisations where you can make a difference, find out how they buy, what they need and go after them with your value proposition. It's not going to work every time, but you will end up with more opportunities to write proposals for.

Next...qualifying a lead and deciding whether to bid.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How to write a to write a business proposal strategy

What's the commonest search term here at Learn to Write Proposals? Simple, people interested in business development and writing business proposals want to know..."how to write a proposal".

The real question here at Learn to Write Proposals is "how do I write a winning business proposal?". And that's something which is not always as straightforward. We can offer a free business proposal template, but that doesn't tell anyone how to write the solution for their clients, nor does a sample proposal - but we can help you figure out what should be in your sales documents when it comes to write a proposal.

There are several steps that you need to go through in order to win business and writing the proposal is just one of them. Over the next few days, I'm going to take a closer look at the proposal lifecycle...which really is the sales lifecycle, starting with finding and creating opportunities - as that's where it all starts.

It's the process known in the USA as "capture planning" - the process from of managing the strategy of an opportunity so that the end result is a win. I'll start by describing the process from the start, but when we think about any process that needs to be put in place we should think about the last part first - the result that we want to achieve.

If we know what it is we wish to achieve, what our goal is, that's when we can plan the series of sub-tasks and activities that will help us achieve that goal. It's something that salespeople are often very bad at - planning backwards, that's why we often have bid managers to manage bids - because salespeople often make the worst project managers. There aren't many organisations in the world where the board would enjoy project managers selling and the sales team running projects and there are good reasons for that. But managing an account and an opportunity often needs the planning skills of a project manager, not just the thrill of the hunt attitude of the salesperson.

So thinking backwards we need to plan the goal; our proposal strategy for that client; our account plan for the client and how we position ourselves for winning work; our interactions with the client and ultimately the reasons why we think our business will benefit by interacting with the client organisation at all. When we know some of these things we can realistically look at finding...and creating opportunities.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Develop effective win themes when you write your business proposals

Writing proposals can be expensive. In large corporations a business development team or proposal centre with a dedicated budget will work on putting together sales documents each complex tender or bid solution. In medium sized organisations there may be a dedicated bid team to work alongside account managers to produce proposals. And in the small organisation maybe the owner/manager works late each night putting together theproposals.

However proposals are produced they take time and resources...and that means money. How often has your organisation done a precise calculation of the cost of producing one proposal? Do you have any idea? or is it just included in the overall sales/cost-of-doing-business overhead?
In the Learn to Write Proposal Survey the average time to produce a proposal is around one week. Assuming one member of staff working ona written proposal for that length of time the cost is in the thousands of dollars...and for small business that's a lot of cash.

Then think about your win rate..and multiply that by the cost of each bid to produce. Chances are, it's becoming a lot of money for no reward. Let's hope that the work you win is delivering good margins.

Now analyse which proposals you won. What was the differentiating factor? Customer knowledge? Better solution? Was it just a better proposal?

So what if you could win all the work you went for? OK...that might be unrealistic, but you should at least be able to cut down the number of the proposals you lose - and that is going to benefit you in two ways - firstly it will save you the money it costs to produce the proposal but secondly it will allow to utilise you time finding better opportunities and working on winning the opportunities that you do decide to bid on.

So how do you decide which bids to go for? Better qualification. At regular points from when the opportunity has been identified to when the proposal is submitted you should qualify the opportunity.

The Learn to Write Proposals Prospect Qualification Toolkit is an interactive tool that helps you identify where your prospective opportunity is weak based on some typical criteria (explicit or not) that buying decisions are made on. This helps you identify early on non-starters or opportunities that were initially pursued that should be shelved.

Using this tool also helps you prioritise your opportunities.

When you've reached the point of no return (when you are always going to submit the bid) it helps you identify weak points that require work in order to maximise your chances of success.

The easiest way to improve your win rate, improve the ROI of your bid team investment and lower your costs isn't just to throw extra resources against every opportunity, but to analyze opportunities to decide which ones you can realistically win.

Visit for more RFP, tender and proposal resources.

Checking it's there

I recently opened up a document in GMail. It opened up in Google Docs and was saved there. Very thoughtfully, Google sent me an email to let me know that it had been saved. However the email programme (GMail) thought that the sender Google Docs was sending spam, so I didn't read it in my inbox.

Apart from being ironic that Gmail thinks GDocs sends spam, I wondered about the number of times that we assume that because something has been sent it has been received as expected. I don't think GDocs expected GMail to spam it's email - it was sent with good intentions, but was it received properly.

How many of us trust the delivery of our proposals that we have spent, days, weeks or months working on to the local courier? Do we always check that it has been received by the person it was addressed to?

Maybe we do with the important stuff, but sometimes the less important stuff might pass by...and who knows where GMail is putting your messages.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Learn to Write Proposals 50% off sale: Tools to help you write better business proposal

I know this isn't a sales blog, but this is a great recession beating opportunity as well as a chance to get proposal templates (including our landscape proposal template), bid management tools...infact everything at a huge discount.

All Learn to Write Proposals items in our shop are 50% off until the end of January.

This includes a lifetime membership with all our tools included - for life.

Don't forget about our newsletter for all the latest offers and articles from Learn to Write Proposals. The January issue has just been published...

Lastly, beat the recession with the Learn to Write Proposals Virtual Bid Team.

Low cost + high quality = low risk + high reward.

We’re so confident in our proposal development service that we won't take our full fee unless we win you the work. This ensures that you keep your expenditure down until you know you have new business and shows how confident we are that we can help you win that business. Find out more here.

Kepp checking our blog - more great advice articles to come.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book review - Harold Lewis "Bids, Tenders & Proposals, Winning Business Through Best Practice"

Harold Lewis is something of an authority on proposal development - authority that has come from over 30 years experience writing winning proposals in a cross-section of public and private business sectors as well as writing books like this one.

Bids, Tenders & Proposals, Winning Business Through Best Practice is a structured guide to the anatomy not just of the proposal, but how to develop you proposal strategy and people. What I love about this book is that it's a clear "how to" guide to almost all the different elements of your proposal...and some of the problems that you will have during your proposal development.

The book covers every aspect of bid preparation and it's easy to find the information you need with a very modular and direct table of contents. Each chapter provides detailed yet practical information, covering the following topics:
  • A bid to succeed
  • Bidding for public sector contracts
  • Tendering for the private sector
  • Bidding for research funding
  • Pre-qualifying for tender opportunities
  • Deciding to bid
  • Analysing the bid specification
  • Managing the bid
  • Talking to the client
  • Bidding in partnership
  • Thinking the work through
  • Developing and writing the bid
  • Explaining approach and methodology
  • Focusing on contract management
  • Defining outputs and deliverables
  • Communicating added value
  • Presenting CVs
  • Describing professional experience
  • Making good use of graphics
  • Stating your price
  • Producing and submitting the bid
  • Understanding how clients evaluate tenders
  • Presentations to clients
  • Doing your own tender auditing
  • Ten true stories
You can see that just from the table of contents that this book is comprehensive. I know from visitors to Learn to Write Proposals that many people involved with proposal writing are interested in not only writing business proposals but also getting public sector money for various new opportunity funding - it's good to see a section dedicated to this area where a comprehensive and detailed proposal is required.

If there is any negative comment about the book, it's that it could be more visual. One of the things that the Shipley Proposal Guide does well is include a lot of graphics - and though proposals are written by wordsmiths (I hope) and we may have a reading/writing learning style (if you believe that kind of thing!) - it's good practice for proposal writers to develop visual representations of ideas as we know that they help to rapidly transmit ideas and aid retension.

That said, Lewis includes a lot of useful examples in tables and worksheets - though it might be nice if these had a downloadable version from the web (though why not just get all the Learn to Write Proposals tools with a membership?).

To me this volume is a great complement to Tom Sant's Persuasive Business Proposals which looks at the use of language and persuasion in your proposal, whereas this book gives you more of the nuts and bolts of how to put it all together. I'd recommend that any aspiring or current bid writer has a copy of this on their bookshelf.

Buy it now from Amazon - Bids Tenders and Proposals: Winning Business Through Best Practice

Buy it now from Amazon - Persuasive Business Proposals: Writing to Win More Customers, Clients and Contracts

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review your proposal...then review it again

I thought I would return to no. 8 on my list of 10 laws for bid writers - "Sturgeon's Revelation" that "90 percent of everything is crap".

OK - so Sturgeon was a science fiction writer and was referring to science fiction but as this currently applies to the world economy maybe it does apply to some proposals too. Thinking back (a long time ago now) to my first proposal I'll admit that it probably wasn't too far off the mark - but how times change!!

But what if your proposal isn't up to scratch? What can you do about it?

Well the first thing you can do is to anticipate that it isn't going to be perfect first time. Which means planning your proposal so that you have a first draft ready at least four days before the final submission - more if you can - take note of England's law on my list:

"The chances of winning a proposal are directly in proportion to the number of hours between finishing it and the time it has to be submitted."

You won't win it if you are rushing to finish it so that you can print it out in time for the courier who is coming to pick it up. Honestly.

Allowing yourself time allows you to complete a re-iterative review of your proposal, each time lowering that 90% (and let's hope it wasn't that bad to begin with). What you are doing is ensuring that each refinement goes a little way to persuading your client to choose your proposal.

So how should it be reviewed? There are many things that you can do. On a large proposal it is worth getting a Red Team together - an independent panel (use colleagues not involved with the bid production) to evaluate your proposal against the RFP and provide structured and constructive feedback on how to improve the proposal. Some bids will use this team throughout each draft cycle of the bid providing a great deal of valuable feedback.

Red teams are good, because sometimes you can be too close to the bid. But a Red Team can be expensive and overkill on a smaller bid. So get peer review from one or two people in your team. Get someone from the technical team to check the geeky stuff. Maybe you need the CEO or a Director to read it and sign off on it. And always get high level review and authorisation to sign off on the financials - this is one part of the proposal that can't be checked too many times, especially if during the proposal review changes are made - don't forget that these can impact the project costs.

And there are things that you can do on your own. Use the Proposal Quality Checklist. And arrange for the proposal to be proofread - use a style guide to ensure consistency or at the minimum have a checklist of unusual or technical spellings.

Projects go through re-iterative quality review stages before acceptance and sign-off because those projects have errors in them, beta phases and alpha phases prior to release. We explain this in our proposal documents, so treat your proposal in the same manner - aim for, but don't expect perfection first time. Just allow enough time to remove as much of the 90% as possible.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Prepare your boilerplate proposal content and use it to persuade

If you've ever prepared a business proposal or document of any kind there's a pretty decent chance that at sometime you've re-used another document that you already had available. Sometimes you've probably used this as a template, or as a source of content to be re-used in other documents - your boilerplate.

You have probably gone further - how many of us have sat in a sales "bullpen" and asked around our colleagues "Does anyone have a proposal about blah, blah, blah that I can use?" or "Does anyone have some text on blah, blah blah that I can use?" This often happens when the under pressure salesperson, with little internal support needs to get a proposal out of the door quickly.

But is it the best way? We'll all say no - that we should start with a blank piece of paper and start our proposal from scratch. Which is great if you have time. But if you are preparing a proposal for a product or service which is a consistent business offering, who ever starts from a blank piece of paper? Yes, I want create bespoke proposal sections that present the solutions and benefits to a client in their current situation, but I'm also going to use some generic content if it's appropriate.

Why? because it saves me hours and hours of time in producing a comprehensive sales document. Sections of my proposal such as previous experience for example - sure I want to pick appropriate projects, but these are not elements of my proposals that are written from scratch every time. What about other sections such as project management information, company history, quality processes, team resumes and case studies? Do you write them from scratch every time?

Appropriateness is the key. We need our proposal to persuade, yet so much boilerplate is generic and quite frankly badly written and dull. Plus generic content usually provides a lot of information, but it doesn't persuade because it's describing what we do, not how we provide a specific solution or benefit to the client. So why don't we write our boilerplate in a way in which we can easily customise it to be specific to a client.

Using the Learn to Write Proposal's Proposal Accelerator you can do just that - applying and editing fields in your boilerplate content to, at a minimum, include a client name - then you can easily alter that name in your document. Use you boilerplate effectively, customising it as required - no blind cut 'n' paste please - and you can have at your fingertips a powerful resource library. The beneftis of a boilerplate management tool like Proposal Accelerator are that you have all your content available in MS Word - no hunting it down on your intranet. It really can speed up you proposal development dramatically.

Let's go back to our previous experience. We can customise the boilerplate for the client by giving a powerful persuasive element - rather than just telling, let's give a reason - include the project and then tell the client why you included it. How is it relevant to this project? What skill did you use or develop that can ensure a satisfactory outcome to the client this time? Yes it's boilerplate, but it's focused on the clients need.

So, I like boilerplate. But don't ever get trapped into using it where you should create new. Creating new gives you fresh content, up-to-date with your current products, services, solutions and thinking which hopefully you may be able to re-use and customise in tomorrow's proposal.

  • re-use where possible
  • create where it's not possible
  • re-write as appropriate to personalise to the client

And remember all your words should be trying to persuade the client to give you the work. Work on persuasive messages, don't only work on the proposal document.